'Giver' takes all: Ambitious sci-fi drama a dispassionate tale of dispassion
Phillip Noyce's science-fiction drama "The Giver" should grab us by our conscientious lapels and shake us with its glimpse of a bleak future in which humanity has been preserved by killing the very qualities that make us human.
Noyce is a gifted director with a track record of engaging films -- "Dead Calm," "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "Patriot Games" among them -- but the very emotions stolen from his characters -- excitement, fear, passion and joy -- are equally missing from his movie.
"The Giver"★ ★ ½
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 94 minutes
In "The Giver," the utopian society of tomorrow possesses a clean, modular look, accented by utilitarian, conformist designs and nifty, functional vehicles perfect for an obligatory chase scene.
That way, Jonas, the young protagonist, can flee from authorities while carrying out one of the silliest, least credible endings in the history of science-fiction films.
Jonas, played by Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, sees only in black-and-white. That way, he cannot be contaminated by the prejudice of color and race. That has been eradicated, along with hatred, jealously, rivalry and other human frailties.
"When people have the freedom to choose," Meryl Streep's chief elder explains, "they choose wrong."
The elders of the community (being the only post-apocalyptic society left, it needs no name) have lifted the burden of wrong choices by giving people daily drugs that suppress emotions.
"The Giver" comes from Lois Lowry's highly influential 1993 best-seller. (In case you notice strong similarities to the movie "Divergent," Barrington novelist Veronica Roth openly cites "The Giver" as the chief inspiration for her own best-seller.)
Lowry's rebel protagonist Jonas was 12 in the book. Thwaites turned 25 last Saturday, but still passes for a peer with Jonas' BFF Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and their friend Fiona (Israeli actress Odeya Rush).
During the community's annual graduation from childhood, the Chief Elder announces each student's career: Asher will become a drone pilot; Fiona will be a nurse in the Nurturing Center, caring for babies until they're assigned to their host families.
Each time she announces a job, Streep's bureaucratic cog says, "Thank you for your childhood," a phrase flush with false gratitude that suggests their youth is a donation, like a pint of blood. The repeated phrase should become frightening, but it does not.
For Jonas, the chief elder has a special honor: the Receiver of Memories, a person exempt from all laws.
The Giver will pass down to Jonas a whale-load of painful memories, the real history of the world before elders narcotized the population into Stepford residents.
Producer Jeff Bridges plays the Giver as a sagely old burnout more than happy to unload his memory-cell burden on to the next generation. Imagine an older, wearier version of Bridges' Dude from "The Big Lebowski."
Bridges imbues the Giver with considerable pain and anguish, expressed with subtle pathos.
However, Thwaites, whose blink-and-he's-gone role as the handsome prince barely registered in "Maleficent," doesn't give Jonas much of an arc here. He almost shrugs off the debilitating memories of war, hatred and violence and maintains an attitude of disaffected toleration.
Meanwhile, co-star Rush relies on massively come-hither eyes in lieu of raw chemistry as the fetching source of Jonas' "stirrings," as the elders call them.
Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard play Jonas' mom and dad. The latter goes dutifully off to work with no critical thought or moral objection to euthanizing infants judged to be of inferior quality.
Upsetting? A little. Shouldn't it be shocking?
Although the first portion of "The Giver" is photographed in black-and-white, as Jonas ends his mandatory drug doses, he begins to see color, a little at first, then everywhere.
Here it's a belabored, slightly confusing device. It was used to much better effect in Gary Ross' brilliant 1998 fantasy "Pleasantville."
Note to Taylor Swift fans: The singer's bit part as Fiona's friend Rosemary is extremely Swift. Take a bathroom break at your own risk.